By Esther Mann, LCSW
My in-laws are a big part of my life. My own parents are no longer alive, so they are the only parents I have. I think they are wonderful people, and though our relationship has had some ups and downs, basically we get along very well.
My husband has one sister, who is married, with four children. Though I consider myself close to my in-laws, my sister-in-law is even closer to her mother, as one would expect. They are like best friends. They see each other constantly, go shopping together, have lunch together, etc. Once in a while they’ll invite me to join them, but they both live in the same neighborhood, and I’m a good 45-minute drive away, so obviously I can’t be as involved. But something tells me that even if I lived near them, I’d still be only an in-law. I would love to be one of them, but bottom line is I’m not. Am I jealous of their relationship? I have to admit, a little. But I’m writing to you because of a more serious matter.
I don’t know how much money my in-laws have in the bank, but I’ve always been under the impression that they are “comfortable.” Though they are not fancy-schmancy people, they live a nice lifestyle, take an occasional trip, and don’t seem to really want for anything. My sister-in-law Susan’s husband is an attorney and one would think that he makes a good salary. But somehow I happen to know that my in-laws tremendously help them out financially. When they go shopping together, my mother-in-law buys clothing for Susan and her children. I know that they help with yeshiva tuition. Most recently, my sister-in-law made an extremely lavish bas mitzvah for her daughter. It was totally over-the-top and it turns out that my in-laws paid for it entirely.
I know that paying for such things is their prerogative. The problem is that my husband—their son—and I really struggle financially to support ourselves and our three children. My husband is an accountant with a small firm and doesn’t make anywhere near what my brother-in-law earns. We struggle to pay our bills every month and sometimes even fall behind. Recently, we had one catastrophe after another in our home, and had to replace a number of appliances and our boiler. Our oven, which is on its last legs, really needs to be replaced, but we’re holding off because our credit-card bills are staggering.
I know that my mother-in-law knows about our added expenses, because I’ve spoken to her about all the things that have broken. What’s so crazy is that they haven’t offered to pay for anything. I can’t understand how they can spend money on frivolous extravagances like clothing and a bas mitzvah for my sister-in-law, and not offer to pay for some of our basic needs.
They occasionally give us a little gift here and there. Birthdays, anniversaries, and Chanukah are always acknowledged with checks, which we desperately need and appreciate. But it doesn’t come close to helping us keep our heads above water most of the time, while they are helping their daughter spend on nonsense.
Besides the practical aspect, which doesn’t make sense to me, I’m feeling uncared for and unloved. It makes me think that a daughter is a daughter is a daughter, and I’ll never come close to being as important to my mother-in-law as her own flesh and blood is. It hurts. Especially since I haven’t had my own mother for many years. It makes me feel so abandoned.
I’m wondering if you think I have the right to tell my mother-in-law how I feel and to just come straight out and ask for the money that we need to cover our extra recent expenses. I don’t want to risk her being angry at me and distancing herself from me. I appreciate what we have, and if I lost that, I’d be devastated. On the other hand, besides feeling like a second-class citizen, we really need the money! What do you think?
It would be nice to believe that all daughters-in-law are perceived the same way as daughters. There are some families in which both daughters and daughters-in-law find themselves treated with the same amount of affection and togetherness. And I’ve even seen families in which mothers actually feel closer to their in-law daughters than they feel toward their own daughters. So anything is possible. But it doesn’t really surprise anyone when a mother has a stronger bond with her flesh and blood than she has with her in-law daughter. A mother bonds with her child from the moment she is placed in her arms after the delivery, and has a long history of togetherness. It’s a long-term, powerful connection.
Nevertheless, it sounds as though your mother-in-law treasures you for you and, through your marriage to her son, has grown to feel close to you, but maybe in a different way than she feels toward her daughter.
Firstly, I would like to validate your feelings. It has to hurt to watch your in-laws spend money without giving it a second thought on luxury items for their daughter, while you and your husband are scratching to make ends meet. Which brings me to the part of your letter that puzzles me most.
Where is your husband in all of this? He is their flesh and blood as well. What is he feeling about this sense of inequality that you are justly reacting to? Does he also feel like a second-class citizen, particularly because they are his actual parents? Why hasn’t he spoken to his parents and asked for the help that the two of you seem to need, particularly at this time?
Until I understand this missing link, it’s hard for me to give you any worthwhile advice about whether it’s your place to approach your in-laws for money. Under normal circumstances, I would say it’s your husband’s duty to talk to them and explain your needs. It’s possible that they don’t know how tight money is for you most of the time and particularly right now. Maybe they think your husband earns more than he actually does, or maybe they just have never taken the time to think about how you two are managing financially. It’s so obvious to you, but maybe not to them.
Perhaps if they are made to understand how truly strapped you two are, it’s likely that your in-laws would be anxious to help you out. But since they can’t read your minds, they possibly do not know the facts of your financial life. And these facts should come from your husband—not from you, unless there are some circumstances regarding his relationship with them that I’m not privy to.
So, assuming your husband has a good relationship with his parents, and assuming he’s not too embarrassed or uncomfortable being honest with them, I hope that you’re able to discuss with him how important it is for him to succeed in getting the help you need.
Sometimes it’s as easy as just asking for what we need. Not always, but hopefully in this case it will be.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.